Monday, February 22, 2010

The Uttermost Farthing: a Free Book review

The Uttermost Farthing (free audiobook here) by R. Austin Freeman is not a Dr. Thorndyke novel; quite the opposite. It's more nearly what you might get if Thorndyke turned vigilante.

A word of warning: this story is somewhat ghoulish. It isn't particularly graphic, but the concept is rather gross. I won't explain it: just read the first chapter, and you'll know basically what's going on. If it grosses you out, drop the whole idea.

You may ask why I stuck it out. Well, there is a certain grim fascination to the idea, in part because Humphrey Challoner is so different from Thorndyke in some ways.

In any case, this is the setup:

Years before the story opens, Challoner is a happily married man. He's also an anatomist with a small private museum specializing in skeletal remains, especially of animals with deformities. His hobby turns out to have more staying power than his marriage, however, when a burglar decides to arrest Mrs. Challoner's vital functions with a bullet.

As they say in the action-hero genre, Big Mistake.

Even stunned by his sudden change of marital status, Challoner is a lot smarter than the cops. He notices that the murderer left behind finger prints (this was the late 1800s, before the cops were as fixated with latent prints as they were in The Red Thumb Mark). There's also a bit of hair--and not ordinary hair; it's ringed hair, unusual enough to help identify the culprit even without the finger prints. Armed with this evidence, the best physique and training money can buy, and a heapin' helpin' of vigilante spirit, Challoner's going to remove some bad guys from the gene pool.

Did I mention that this is before the story opens? Well, let's open the story, already.

As the story begins, Humphrey Challoner is an old man on the way out. He likes his doctor, a guy named Wharton, who is more like Jervis than Thorndyke. Challoner has shown Dr. Wharton around the private museum at times. He tells the doctor about his personal tragedy and bequeaths the place--especially the museum--to the doctor, including a unique collection no one else even knows exists. Dr. Wharton also gets a secret stash of notes detailing the provenance of all the more interesting specimens. The bulk of the story is Wharton's edited version of those notes.

It should be clear that Challoner's new hobby doesn't bear imitating, though he does set things up (generally) so that he's acting in self defense. Still, the story has points of interest as Dr. Wharton mulls over the moral and philosophical issues. The main mystery here, however, is why no one has made a major movie out of this so far.

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